Sunpump_1
Credit: Sunpump Solar

By combining solar and heat pump technology, the company’s units provide a more reliable source of power than conventional solar panels

Bruce Gray took his first stab at the residential solar panel business back in 2010, but he quickly learned that such systems suffer from a well-deserved reputation for being unreliable energy generators. “Sales were slow, so we surveyed our customers,” says the founder and chief technology officer of SunPump Solar Inc. from his Qualicum Beach office.

Their wish—more reliability at a lower price—wasn’t exactly music to a struggling entrepreneur’s ears. So Gray turned to Google’s open-source think tank platform, Solve for X, and an old project from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration bubbled to the surface. In the 1960s, NASA engineers faced a challenge: how to keep astronauts alive on the frigid dark side of the moon. Their solution? A system combining solar and heat pump technology. “That’s when a light came on,” Gray says of his decision to adapt the U.S. space agency’s invention to the North American residential market.

His company became SunPump, whose unit, which can heat homes and water, resembles a geothermal system at a fraction of the cost of drilling wells. Instead of tapping the Earth’s energy, the system uses a refrigerant to store and release heat from the sun, eliminating the reliability woes that have plagued conventional solar. The owner of a detached single-family home can cut heating costs by a third compared to conventional baseboard heaters, reducing carbon emissions to boot. SunPump employs 10, plans to boost staff, and has sold units as far north as Inuvik and as far south as Texas, but the company is seeking venture capital or angel investment. “We’re in the valley of death,” Gray says with a chuckle.